By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
Whatever the fallout inherent from the Joe Smith debacle, all was forgiven by the '03-'04 season. The addition of hardened vets Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell, coupled with the potential-realizing dominance of Garnett, made the Wolves the team to beat in the West.
The team posted a 58–24 record and glided through the first round of the playoffs against the Nuggets. The next round would prove more difficult.
The greatest game to date in franchise history came on Garnett's 28th birthday, exactly four years after Malik Sealy's tragic death, during Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals against the Sacramento Kings. Every seat in the Target Center was filled, though there would be little sitting that night. With 2.2 seconds remaining and the Wolves up by three, the Kings took the ball in-bounds for one last shot at a tie. After Chris Webber's buzzer-beating three-pointer rimmed in and out, the Target Center transformed into an insane asylum.
Garnett, having just racked up 32 points, 21 rebounds, and 5 blocks, leapt up on the scorer's table and saluted the shrieking crowd, which turned out to be the most iconic moment of his career with the Timberwolves.
Downtown traffic that drizzling evening was at a standstill. Car horns—celebratory, not frustrated—echoed between office buildings. Hooting fans hanging out of car windows proudly waved Timberwolves flags and jerseys. It was the high point of the franchise.
"To walk out of Game 7 to that atmosphere, it was just incredible," says team president Wright. "Whether it's repeated or not, that's something you can never forget."
Unfortunately for the Wolves, they were unable to ride the euphoria to victory in the Western Conference Finals. In a tightly matched, highly competitive series against Minneapolis's original NBA franchise, the Lakers, the Wolves fell in six games.
It was no secret heading into the 2004-05 season that Latrell Sprewell was unhappy. During the preseason, the wiry, cornrowed slasher made it publicly known that he wanted a contract extension before the Wolves tipped off the season against the Knicks. If none was offered, Sprewell said, he would ask for a sign-and-trade deal or, barring that, test the free-agent waters at season's end. In any event, he wasn't interested in negotiating during the season.
Which made his now-infamous statements on Halloween all the more baffling.
"Why would I want to help them win a title?" he said of the Timberwolves. "They're not doing anything for me. I'm at risk. I have a lot of risk here. I got my family to feed."
The elephant in the room was that Sprewell was pulling in a cool $14 million at the time. Granted, it's possible the "family to feed" line was simply a cliché that Spree unintentionally blurted without giving a moment's thought to what it would imply to his fans, i.e., those who might literally be struggling to feed their families. But the 13-year guard forfeited any benefit of the doubt when he went on to describe the $20-plus million offered to him as "insulting."
Sprewell subsequently found himself cast as the poster boy of the Out of Touch Professional Athlete. American sports fans are a rare breed who, given enough time and apologetic tears, will forgive an athlete for choking his coach half to death (walk it off, P.J.), but will harbor nothing but contempt for a certified delusional whiner.
But maybe, just maybe, Sprewell wasn't exaggerating after all. In early 2008, the ex-NBAer had filed a foreclosure suit for his $405,000 suburban Milwaukee home after failing to make five months' worth of mortgage payments. He also auctioned off his yacht, on which he still owed $1.3 million.
That said, his family reportedly still has access to food.
As for the team: The '04-'05 season would go down as the most disappointing year ever for the franchise, fans, and players. It's difficult to fathom, but one year after coming within a game of reaching the finals, the Wolves failed to even make the playoffs.
Which brings us to the present day. The Big Moment—or rather, catalyst—of this era, obviously, was the Garnett trade. In parting ways with the future Hall of Famer, the Wolves received five youngsters, including Ryan Gomes, Al Jefferson, and Sebastian Telfair, in addition to some cash and two first-round draft picks.
The immediate results have been as everyone predicted, which is to say dismal. Last season, the Wolves went 22-60—the same record the first team posted during the Dome days.
But compared to that first season, fan enthusiasm is virtually nonexistent; ticket sales are anemic. Where the organization once boasted a season-ticket base of more than 13,000 the first couple of years, this season it's below 5,000, and that includes corporate sponsorships.
"Unfortunately, this is the lowest it's ever been in terms of full season-ticket sales," says Jeff Munneke, the team's vice president of client development. "But our path is pretty clear. We're rebuilding around Al Jefferson. We have young guys and guys coming in. We always say that when the team wins, the beer gets a little colder and the hot dogs taste a little better."